Blame sex-ed class, or the lack of conversation around the dinner table pertaining to sexual health, but a shocking amount of women (and men!) don’t know the basic facts of when a woman is most fertile nor how the ovulation cycle works.
Whether you’re looking understand ovulation and fertility to get pregnant, learn how to avoid getting pregnant or are simply curious, here is an overview of what every woman should know about the fertile window in order to get the timing right and learn when she is ovulating.
How ovulation and conception work
As a deep study by Wilcox has shown throughout the years, during the average woman’s menstrual cycle, there are six days when there is a chance of conceiving naturally. This is known as a ‘fertile window’ that comprises of the five days before ovulation and the day of ovulation itself, meaning the entire 24 hours after the egg is released and travels down the fallopian tubes – so the sixth day varies from cycle to cycle (1). Outside of this window, the chance of conceiving naturally significantly drops.
In fact, the day two days before ovulation presents the best chance of all, followed by the day before and the day of ovulation. Knowing when your ‘fertile window’ occurs in your cycle is important to increase your chance of conceiving.
Of course, since the day of ovulation can vary month to month, a woman’s 6-day fertile window varies and can be difficult to predict based on how long the menstrual cycle is in length.
If you’re struggling to keep track of your cycle, another approach is to look at all the days of the month and see, based on statistical data, what the probability is of being in your 6-day fertile window for each day. Basically ask yourself, “What are all the days during my cycle when there is a chance I’m in my fertile window and therefore can become pregnant?”
Fertile phase of the menstrual cycle
Not only does the fertile phase of a woman’s menstrual cycle include the ‘fertile window’ (those six days of the month where intercourse can result in pregnancy), it includes all the days in the cycle in which a woman may be within the window. That is, the fertile phase includes any day in your cycle where sexual intercourse could result in pregnancy.
For a woman to define the fertile phase of her cycle and after period, she needs to first understand when she is ovulating. Ovulation can be identified by using ovulation test strips and home ovulation kits bought from your local pharmacy, however, there are various other signs and symptoms that can suggest ovulation you can keep your eye on.
According to Wilcox’s study, most women have a 5% or greater chance of being in their fertile window anywhere from day 6 to day 21 of their cycle – counting from day 1 being the first day a woman bleeds (1).
Signs and symptoms of ovulation
Despite the fact that ovulation varies from woman to woman, the biological changes that occur during ovulation are fairly consistent for each person and can help you tell if you’re ovulating.
What’s more, there are primary symptoms of ovulation that are a little more common in women, but some experience what is known as ‘secondary signs of ovulation’.
1. Primary symptoms of ovulation
• Increase in cervical mucus volume (a woman will often notice this increase in mucus in her underwear, or when she wipes after she uses the toilet. Additionally, during sexual intercourse, there may be a noticeable amount of natural lubrication)
• Thinning of cervical mucus (some woman note that it appears more like a ‘raw-egg white’ in texture)
• Spike in basal body temperatures (this can be noted by a woman taking her temperature as soon as she wakes on a daily basis and charting her temperature. When the temperature spikes, and maintains this elevation over the next few days, it is another sign of ovulation)
• Change in cervical position or firmness
2. Secondary symptoms of ovulation
• Light spotting
• Pain on one side of the lower abdomen (note that the side of pain may change from month to month and ovulatory pain is typically a dull ache and not a sharp or shooting pain)
• Breast tenderness
• Increased libido
• Heightened sense of smell, taste or even vision
If you do not notice these signs and symptoms of ovulation, that’s OK – some women have very subtle ovulation signs that can be difficult to pick up on.
Why am I not ovulating?
These are a few reasons to bear in mind if you’re concerned about fertility and why you may not be ovulating naturally:
1. Oral contraceptives
Remember, if you are using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) or other hormonal medications for contraception, the goal of these therapies is to inhibit ovulation. These medications are meant to stop a woman from ovulating to prevent pregnancy. Therefore, signs of ovulation would not pertain to an individual using these medications.
2. Post birth
Also, if you have recently given birth, ovulation is delayed. In all of the studies combined, ovulation started, on average, between 45 and 94 days after a woman gave birth. However, in two specific cases, women started ovulating as early as 25 and 27 days after giving birth, so there is a chance you could become pregnant again very soon after delivering your baby! (1)
Ovulation often takes a longer time to resume naturally in women that breast feed their babies, however you can still become pregnant – despite your period not yet returning). Exclusive breast feeding decreases risk of pregnancy, but not by 100%. If you are exclusively breast feeding your baby, it can take up to an average of 15 months for your menstrual cycle to return.
How to get pregnant with an irregular period
If you are of child-bearing age (typically between 15 years – 40 years of age) and your period is irregular, or you have months where you do not bleed and you also do not experience signs of ovulation, speak to a health care provider.
Irregular cycles can be due to a variety of reasons, however between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of childbearing age have a condition known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). These women do not always ovulate each cycle and hormones are often in an unbalanced state. As a woman gets older, her periods naturally become more irregular as her hormones begin to decrease and she is no longer as fertile.
This stage of life is known as perimenopause (around menopause) and often begins around the age of 45 – 48 years old. Menopause is defined as one full year without a menstrual period. The average age a woman experiences menopause is 52 years old.
If you have more concerns about your fertility or ovulation issues, seek the advice of your doctor. Good luck!
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1. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC27529/